The iPhone: What you need to know

The iPhone: What you need to know

Steve Jobs prefaced his introduction of the iPhone to the world by saying, "This is a day I've been looking forward to for two-and-a-half years." And it's safe to say that Mac users have been pining after such a product for at least as long.

Apple touts the iPhone as an iPod, a mobile phone, and an Internet communications device all wrapped up in one. Perhaps it's not a huge surprise from a company that's taken a large consumer electronics focus with the iPod (and even dropped "computer" from its name ) but the iPhone is clearly big news.

Although it won't be available until June, and Apple plans to share more details about the iPhone in the coming months, we got our hands on one for a short while, and here's an in-depth look at what we know so far--focusing on the new device's capabilities as a phone , Internet-enabled device , and widescreen iPod .

The phone

Like most of the Palm OS-, Windows Mobile-, and Symbian OS-based smart phones on the market, the iPhone has a touch-sensitive screen. But that's pretty much where the similarities end.

So how is the iPhone different?

Instead of a small keyboard that's a standard part of the bottom of most smart phones, the iPhone has no keyboard at all. Instead of a bevy of buttons on the front to navigate and control features, the iPhone has a single Home button on its front and just a few others on the sides--everything else is controlled via changeable, onscreen buttons and icons. Instead of a stylus, the iPhone uses your finger. And instead of a scaled-down operating system to power it, the iPhone runs a version of OS X.

OS X? Which version?

Apple isn't saying, although when we asked a company executive if it was a weird, not-really-OS-X version of OS X, he replied: "This is OS X." To be more specific, it's a version of OS X that's been optimized for the iPhone hardware. But Apple's statements lead us to believe that the iPhone runs a mostly recognizable version of OS X under the hood.

Tell me more about the iPhone's screen. Won't it scratch easily?

Indications from Apple are that the iPhone's display is more scratch-resistant than that of the iPods. The screen itself is a 3.5-inch, touch-sensitive display, which has a resolution of 320-by-480 pixels at 160 pixels-per-inch.

So if there are no buttons, how do I make calls on the iPhone?

Well, that's where the rubber meets the road, isn't it? As Jobs said during his keynote , "What's the killer app [for the iPhone]? The killer app is making calls. It's amazing how hard it is to make calls on phones." Having used various smart phones in the past, we can attest to that frustration.

So here's how the iPhone tackles phone-calling: A click on the Home button takes you to the main window, at the bottom left corner of which is the Phone app. A tap on that with your finger activates the iPhone's calling features. All this--and more--is possible thanks to Apple's patented Multi-Touch technology, which in addition to letting you tap on icons also lets you use your finger for fairly accurate typing that ignores unintended touches as well as certain multi-finger gestures (more on that later).

To make a call, you can type a number on the virtual keypad that appears at the bottom on the screen, or chose a number from your list of contacts, favorites, or recent calls. The iPhone lets you put a party on hold, and merge two calls together into a conference call, with one touch of the screen.

What about ringtones?

Jobs demonstrated one ring tone during his presentation-- and the iPhone will ship with several of them. But we don't yet know whether you can assign different rings to different people (as many other phones allow) or use your iTunes music as ring tones.

What other calling features will the iPhone sport?

There are two we saw on display during the keynote.

Voice mail. The iPhone takes a modern approach to voice mail. Instead of dialing in to a voice mail system and listening to all your queued up messages one by one, the iPhone's Visual Voicemail feature displays a list of current voice mails, including the name of who sent them and when they were sent. When you tap on any one of them, that message plays. You can also choose to save or delete them, one at a time. The entire effect is not unlike an e-mail client for voice mail.

Sensors. A proximity sensor turns off the iPhone's display and the touch sensor when you bring the phone to your ear to prevent accidental button activations. There's also an ambient light sensor that adjusts the screen's brightness depending on the surroundings (think of the MacBook Pro), and an accelerometer that senses when you turn the iPhone from one orientation (landscape or portrait) to the other--more on that later as well.

What are the iPhone's tech specs?

The 4.5-by-2.4-by-0.46-inch (115-by-61-by-11.6-millimeter) iPhone has no external antenna and weighs 4.8 ounces (135 grams). It will come in two versions: a 4GB, US$499 model and an 8GB, $599 model. Those capacities are the iPhone's total storage for all applications, photos, music, and videos.

The iPhone a quad-band GSM phone, which means it'll work in the U.S. as well as many other parts of the world. (GSM--Global System for Mobile Communications--is the dominant standard in most of the world, but in the U.S. only Cingular and T-Mobile use it.) For wireless data, it can work with e-mail and connect to the Internet using AT&T/Cingular's EDGE network or with the phone's built-in 802.11b/g Wi-Fi. The iPhone also includes Bluetooth 2.0/EDR capabilities. But it isn't clear yet if Bluetooth will be just for headsets or if you'll be able to use it for syncing data with your computer, or whether you'll be able to sync via Wi-Fi. One thing Apple did tell us is that you won't be able to use the iPhone as a wireless Bluetooth modem for a laptop on the road, for example (at least that's the current plan). Jobs also noted that Apple will release models with third-generation (3G) wireless data capabilities in the future--3G networks are faster than AT&T/Cingular's EDGE network.

Wait--AT&T/Cingular? Does that mean I have to use Cingular as my iPhone service provider?

Yes. Both iPhone models will require a two-year contract with AT&T (formerly known as Cingular), the exclusive U.S. carrier. Apple has no plans to release a version of the iPhone without a service contract or one that is unlocked. Both models will be available beginning in June from Apple Stores and from AT&T/Cingular.

So there's just the one Home button on the iPhone's front. What other switches and features does the phone's case have?

On the front of the iPhone, just above the screen, is a small slit for a speaker -- the one you'll hold to your ear when you're talking. The back of the iPhone sports a camera lens for its two-megapixel digital camera. On one side are a pair of volume control buttons and a switch that lets you toggle between an audible ring and silent operation (no word on if the iPhone will vibrate). The top has a 3.5-millimeter headset and audio jack, a card for the phone's SIM card (which identifies you to the cellular network), and a sleep-wake toggle button. On the bottom, there's a loudspeaker (for audio playback and speakerphone), a microphone, and a 30-pin iPod dock connector (just like the one on dockable iPods).

And for travelers, there's a selection in the iPhone's settings called Airplane Mode. Activating it turns off all the radios inside the iPhone (cellular, Bluetooth, and WiFi), making it safe to use the iPod and PDA features while in flight.

What about accessories? Will they be as numerous as the iPods'?

Not at first, but give it time. Near the end of his Macworld Expo presentation, Jobs mentioned just two accessories: stereo headphones with integrated microphone, and a Bluetooth headset that pairs automatically with the iPhone and goes to sleep to preserve battery life. Without a doubt, we'll see other innovative iPhone add-ons--not just from Apple, but other third-party developers as well.

The Internet-enabled device

Steve Jobs made it clear that the iPhone belongs in the smart phone category, as a product that does much more than just make and take calls.

Like what?

Like this:

E-mail. One of the most important features of a smart phone is its ability to send and receive e-mail. The iPhone tackles mail head-on with an HTML e-mail client supporting rich HTML and inline images, and resembling OS X's Mail app. It works with POP3 or IMAP e-mail accounts, lets you choose a split-view approach (with your inbox on top and selected message on the bottom), includes standard e-mail folders, and parses phone numbers in e-mail messages for quick phone dialing. In addition, Apple has partnered with Yahoo to provide free Blackberry-style "push" IMAP e-mail--which automatically notifies you whenever you have new mail, without your having to manually check--to all iPhone customers. Of course, that may mean you'll need to switch to a Yahoo e-mail address to reap the benefits of that feature.

SMS Messaging. The iPhone also includes a full SMS text-messaging client that looks nearly identical to iChat . Unfortunately, the version of the software that Apple showed didn't let you connect to the AIM instant-messaging network; it worked only with SMS messages. Many cellular phone plans charge a premium for text messages, although it's unclear whether that will be true of the AT&T/Cingular calling plans available for iPhone users.

PDA. Another component of any smart phone is its PDA capabilities--storing and displaying your contacts, phone numbers, appointments, notes, and so on. Like many smart phones, the iPhone looks to be quite capable of tackling all this and more. There's an iCal-like Calendar app for appointments, and a Contacts section within the Phone application where you'll find contacts' phone numbers, addresses, and the like. So how do you get all your contacts and appointments onto the iPhone? Fear not--you won't have to input everything by hand (or, as the case may be, by finger). The iPhone will sync data, using the familiar iPod-syncing interface within iTunes, with a Mac or PC just like an iPod does. Presumably, that means the iPhone can sync with OS X's Address Book and iCal apps on the Mac, as well as contacts with Outlook Express or calendars and contacts with Outlook on Windows PCs. There's also a Notes application on the iPhone, but Jobs didn't say much about it, and it was non-functional on the iPhone we played with.

Widgets As miniature apps, Apple's Dashboard widgets seem like a great match for the iPhone. Jobs showed two that he said will be on the iPhone--Stocks and Weather. The Stocks widget can display multiple stock quotes as well as show percentage changes. The Weather widget can have multiple windows for different cities, and you move between them by swiping your finger across the screen. These widgets auto-connect to the Internet to update.

There may be more Widgets once the iPhone launches. Or Apple (or third-party developers, if they're allowed) may offer additional widgets at some point.

Web Browser Unlike other smart phones, which run browsers that are anything but full-featured, the iPhone includes a version of Safari . Apple calls it ;"the first fully-usable HTML browser on a phone"--it can load standard Web pages (not scaled-down WAP versions) complete with images and formatting. You can navigate around a page by dragging your finger to scroll and "pinching" (drawing two finger together or apart on the screen), or double-tapping will zoom in or out on a section. You can even open multiple Web sites at once, and move between them at will. Rotating the iPhone automatically switches its screen to landscape mode.

Google Maps Apple worked closely with Google on several aspects of the iPhone. The Safari browser includes a Google search bar (like the standard Safari), but the phone also includes a Google Maps application. With it, you can map out destinations, search for local businesses, save and access favorites, and view satellite imagery of mapped locations. (Google Maps isn't exclusive to the iPhone--the company makes a free app for Palm Treos, for example, that provides similar functionality.)

All this sounds like a lot of data entry. How do I type on a buttonless phone?

Use the onscreen keyboard. Both the e-mail and chat modes use this feature for text input. Although the keyboard doesn't offer tactile feedback, making error-free input more difficult than a hardware keypad, the iPhone features automatic error detection and text prediction--even if you do make a mistake, the software will often fix it before you notice. In our brief hands-on time with an early iPhone, we found that single-finger typing actually worked quite well. (Although the iPhone doesn't offer tactice feedback for typing, it does offer visual feedback -- when you press a key, it enlarges, as if it's rising up to meet your finger.)

What about the camera on the iPhone? What can I do with that?

The iPhone camera's 2-megapixel sensor is small by digital-camera standards, but impressive for a mobile phone. The camera uses the screen for (very large) image framing, and the phone's software includes a photo-management application that lets you browse your photo library or view individual photos in full-screen mode. This app takes advantage of the touchscreen by letting you "swipe" images left or right to cycle through them, or pinch images to zoom in or out (as with the version of Safari on the iPhone). There's no word on whether the iPhone will also be able to capture video.

How about third-party apps?

It's unclear. Although the iPhone runs a version of OS X, developers won't necessarily be able to modify their apps for the iPhone and release them into the wild. In an interview with the New York Times after the keynote, Jobs said the Apple will "define everything that is on the phone." Similar to the iPod's games , other companies will be able to create software for the iPhone, but Apple will be the gatekeeper (such as with the Google and Yahoo software that will be included on the iPhone).

Our best guess is that third-party developers will be able to write software for the iPhone, but not with the freedom that they currently enjoy when it comes to Mac development. Apple may allow more freedom for the installation of simple widgets, while tightly restricting the release of full-blown applications. We envision a model similar to those you see on gaming platforms, in which third-party developers can create software, but it must be approved and controlled by the hardware manufacturer (in this case, Apple) before it's released to the general public. In the end, we think the iTunes Store will most likely be the only place where you'll be allowed to buy iPhone software.

The iPod

As an iPod, the iPhone's functionality is similar to that of a fifth-generation (5G) model . In addition to playback of the standard array of music-file formats, the iPhone can display photos as well as play video. There are several key differences.

Like what?

Like navigation, for starters. Notably absent from the iPhone is the iPod's famous Click Wheel; to navigate through your media and control playback, you use the iPhone's touch-sensitive screen. To find a particular song, for example, you tap on the Music item, tap on the Songs item, then move your finger up or down the screen to scroll the song list up or down; a flick of your finger down the screen gives the scroll momentum to scroll more quickly. If you don't want to scroll through all your music to get to a certain section, you can also tap your finder on any letter of the alphabet from the list displayed on the side of the screen to jump directly to items beginning with that letter. (Because of the small size of the letters, however, accurate jumps were somewhat difficult to achieve during in our brief time with the iPhone--but we did bypass a lot of scrolling.)

Once you've found the song you're looking for, tap the track's name to start it playing. Even with the different method of control, the menu system and media-browsing system are recognizably iPod.

Tell me about the screen.

Gladly. When turned horizontally, the iPhone is the first iPod to offer wide-screen viewing. (The built-in accelerometer comes in handy here, since it recognized when you're turned the iPhone and adjusts video accordingly.) The screen measures 3.5 inches diagonally, with physical dimensions of 2.9 by 1.9 inches. That's not quite a cinematic 16:9 aspect ratio (it's more like 3:2), but it's wider than the current iPod aspect ratio. A double-tap on the iPhone's screen will toggle between a zoomed-in view, in which the video fills the screen, and a letterboxed view, with black bars at the top and the bottom.

Apple has taken advantage of the iPhone's impressive screen to add other media capabilities as well. For example, album art display is much larger than on current iPods. And when browsing music with the iPhone oriented horizontally, the iPhone provides an optional CoverFlow mode just like in iTunes 7 --drag your finger across the screen to flip through album covers to find music.

Sounds great--will other iPods soon add that widescreen capability?

Apple may have unveiled the iPhone six months in advance of its release, but that doesn't signal a shift in the company's long-standing policy about future plans for products--it doesn't reveal them. That said, we're hoping that this design becomes part of the next iPod, perhaps with the cellular components replaced by a large hard drive but with Bluetooth for wireless headphones and WiFi for direct-to-iPod purchases from the iTunes Store. When will that happen? Only the higher-ups at Apple could tell you with any certainty. And they're not talking.

I thought the iPhone had a hard drive.

No, like the iPod nano, the iPhone includes 4GB or 8GB of flash-based memory, much more compact when compared to the considerably more spacious 1.8-inch hard drives found in 5G iPods. Although using flash memory helps prolong battery life, the iPhone's small storage capacity is an interesting limitation for a device with video-viewing capabilities. (Full-length movies easily top 1GB, meaning you shouldn't expect to carry too many on an iPhone.) There's also no slot for expanding the iPhone's internal memory with extra flash cards.

Are there any similarities between the iPod and the iPhone?

The iPhone retains the 30-pin dock-connector port present since the third-generation iPod, which means that many existing dock-connector-based iPod accessories may work with the iPhone right away. However, others will need to be redesigned. One big issue with the iPhone is that, as a cellular phone, it's broadcasting wireless signals that the iPod never did. That means that some accessories will need to be redesigned with shielding, so that they don't pick up radio interference from the iPhone.

Since it uses the dock connector, we'd guess that you'll be able to charge it from a computer's USB port or using an AC adapter.

You mentioned charging the battery. What kind of battery performance can I expect from the iPhone?

One of the problems with converged devices such as smart phones is battery life--with so many great functions, it'll be easy to run down the battery without even noticing. Apple told us the iPhone will contain a single battery (which, like the iPod, you can't remove or swap) to power all aspects of its operation. The company also says the battery will last up to five hours for talk, video playback, or Internet browsing, and up to 16 hours for audio playback. (The iPod nano, for comparison, is rated for up to 24 hours of audio playback, and the 80GB iPod can play up to six-and-a-half hours of video.) In any event, you'll need to exercise some good judgment if you want to ensure that you have enough juice left for your phone once you're done listening to music, browsing the Web, or watching video.

The last word

The iPhone breaks new ground for Apple, but it also takes its cue from the expertise Apple garnered and lessons it learned from the iPod--one of the most successful consumer electronics products in recent memory. In the coming months, Apple will probably parcel out additional bits of information about the iPhone (and when Apple brings it to Europe in the fourth calendar quarter of 2007, and to Asia in 2008). But one thing is already clear: Apple has again done what it seems to do best--take a product that exists and give it the polish and attention to detail it deserves.

[Dan Frakes is a Macworld senior editor and the reviews editor of Playlist. Jonathan Seff is Macworld's senior news editor.]

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